Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I was just wondering if any of the learned who frequent this Forum know of a good discussion of the superfluous “of” in sentences like “I don’t know how big of a house I’m looking for.” Where does this come from? What mechanism produced it? Is it strictly an Americanism? I have a vague notion that it’s not really very old.
Of course, I take my “Language Log” medicine every day, and so I know that it’s both unscientific and illiberal to be irked by any common usage—but I have to confess this does irk me. (Confession is good for the soul. . . )
I didn’t know anything about it 5 minutes ago, but I own some good reference works—in particular, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (a great, great book). The article “of a” is on pages 680-1 and takes up a whole large page by itself, so I’ll just transcribe the paragraph that contains the most certainties:
What we have here is a fairly recent American idiom that has nearly a fixed form: that or how or too, or sometimes as, followed by an adjective, then of a and a noun. (In the rare instances where a plural noun is used, a is omitted.) Our evidence shows the idiom to be almost entirely oral; it is rare in print except in reported speech. The earliest examples we have seen so far are in the American Dialect Dictionary and date back to 1942 and 1943. It is undoubtedly at least somewhat older.
They relate this idiom to others that use “of a”—like the noun-fronted “sort of a,” “kind of a,” as well as adjective-fronted phrases like “enough of a,” “more of a,” and “much of a.” But they admit that the exact relations are unclear: “We conclude that all is not known about these idioms.” And they end by saying that it’s a spoken form that you shouldn’t use in formal writing—which is about as illiberal as the MWDEU gets.
Hey, David, while I’ve got you on the line, do you know anything about an alleged legal phrase “empiric victory” that’s different from “Pyrrhic victory”? Deadmanjones posted on it back on the 9th, and I haven’t been able to find any evidence that such a phrase exists among practitioners of your profession.
Hi, Pat! Thanks so much. I guess that my intuitions that the idiom is American, not too old, and hard to account for are about right. “Rare in print,” of course, doesn’t mean “rare on the Internet”—I see it in casual writing all the time.
I’m starting to be embarrassed that I don’t own the Dictionary of English Usage, apart from the fact that it sounds like fun, and I’m gonna price it on Amazon now.
As for your question, I saw the original post, and “empiric victory” rings no professional bells with me. We litigators know everything there is to know about Pyrrhic victories, alas.
The MWDEU is the best 20 dollar investment I ever made—thorough, evidence-based, and drily funny.
Thanks for the “empiric” comment; I suspected as much. I’m always amazed at how much usage commentary on the internet is just blithely invented.